Trade winds for peace: In the air, a hope song

A political push and removal of barriers will see a rise in trade, and peace, between India and Pakistan...

This article was originally published in The News and The Times of India last week

Trade winds for peace

By Beena Sarwar

“Trade for peace” is the new catchphrase defining the emerging relationship between India and Pakistan – a relationship historically so troubled that, when not actually at war, they have been engaged in a virtual cold war. But the winds of change are now blowing in a more positive phase, heralded by recent breakthroughs on the trade front.

Pakistan plans to grant the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status to India, while New Delhi has announced opening up of its market for foreign direct investment (FDI) by Pakistani companies. The two countries have opened a new jointly-operated trade gate at Wahgah border, and large, official trade delegations have visited each other’s countries. Both countries have agreed to liberalise and give multiple entry business visas to each other’s citizens and are discussing the opening of cross-border branches of Indian and Pakistani banks.

This process was catalysed in May 2010 by the ground-breaking Indo-Pak Business Meet, co-sponsored by the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) and the Pakistan-India CEOs Business Forum in New Delhi, organised by Aman ki Asha, the peace campaign launched by the Jang Group of Pakistan and The Times of India on January 1, 2010.

The campaign itself was an icebreaker in the midst of tensions following the terrorist attacks of November 2008 in Mumbai. According to polls, conducted before the launch and a year later, Aman ki Asha improved Indians’ and Pakistanis’ perceptions about each other.

The campaign strengthens, and is strengthened by, the non-government organisations that have been laying the groundwork for years. It also energises people on both sides of the border to work for the peace agenda. Other media does cover these efforts, but the Aman ki Asha campaign caught the public imagination as never before, giving both governments the confidence to move towards improving relations. And it has provided the business community with a much-needed platform.

The landmark May 2010 Business Meet brought together some 250 Indian and 60 Pakistani businessmen and women in an unprecedented large and high-powered gathering, addressed by Indian Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee. The delegates’ joint statement highlighted achievable objectives, including six sectors with the highest potential for mutual cooperation: Textiles, Information Technology (IT), Agriculture, Healthcare, Energy and Education.

The statement urged both governments to ease visa restrictions, especially for the business community and simply let the people meet, as “the single greatest step the governments can take, that will have the greatest impact in all areas of concern”.
It urged lifting the ban on cell-phone roaming between India and Pakistan — probably the only two neighbouring countries in the world that disallow this facility — and on video up-linking from India to Pakistan.

With Indian and Pakistani IT companies keen to work together, the IT Committee has convened several times. The Health and Education Committees have met; Pakistani and Indian Rotarians have joined hands with Aman ki Asha to provide free surgeries for children with heart diseases.

At closed-door conferences and strategic seminars organised by Aman ki Asha, thought-leaders and opinion-makers have discussed sensitive issues including water, media, security, Kashmir, and terrorism (former heads of RAW and ISI attended the last one). Their joint statements reflect consensus on key issues.

Aman ki Asha’s concerts and readings involving music and literary giants, and sustained campaigns for easing visa restrictions (‘Milne Duo‘) and releasing cross-border prisoners (‘In Humanity’s Name‘), have blasted “peace” and cross-border collaboration in the public domain as never before.

All this contributes to laying the ground for better political and diplomatic relations. Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari was warmly received in India, even by the traditionally hard-line BJP. His invitation to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to visit Pakistan appears likely to be taken up this year.

The enormity of the suffering caused by the military standoff between Pakistan and India came to the fore with the Siachin avalanche that killed over 130 Pakistani soldiers. Pakistan’s opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, and even Chief of Army Staff Gen. Kayani have joined the growing chorus of voices on both sides of the border calling to de-militarise the world’s highest battleground, where extreme weather conditions have claimed more lives than ‘enemy’ fire.

Meanwhile, the trade route to peace is moving along. Last week, the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and the Pakistan Business Council (PBC) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Aman ki Asha agreeing to host annual conferences alternately in India and Pakistan. The second Aman ki Asha Indo-Pak Economic Conference, and the first under this partnership, is scheduled to take place on May 7-8, 2012, in Lahore.

There is a growing realisation that war between the two nuclear-armed neighbours is not an option. Countries that engage in mutual trade and investment don’t go to war.

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